Question: Technology at the Gulch… where does it fit?
A 15-year-old boy named Billy recently accused me of being a Luddite. It’s shocking when a teenager insults you like that—and he did mean it as an insult. I have Kurt Vonnegut to thank for knowing what Luddite means, which helped me avoid some embarrassment with Billy: a Luddite is someone opposed to new technology. In a comical chapter of his memoir A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut embraces being a Luddite: he types on a typewriter, insists on using the postal service in a time of ubiquitous email, and celebrates mundane daily chores like dropping a letter one of those big blue bullfrog mailboxes.
I pointed out to this wisecrack Billy that I am definitively not a Luddite. The original Luddites were far more overtly destructive. They were a group of laborers in 19th century Britain who destroyed the textile machines that were replacing them as workers. In hindsight, no matter how sympathetic we may be toward those workers, we can see how hopeless their efforts were in the face of irreversible change. Within a few years they were mostly sentenced to jail or public execution, or alive but out of a job.
No, I told Billy, this unwinnable ignorance does not describe me. Though, if I chose to identify as a modern Luddite there is a litany of studies that would provide me with fodder, showing links between growing screen time and higher obesity rates, less sleep, more depression, lower self-confidence, and feelings of general worthlessness. But it need not be that way for everyone, and as a society we are certainly not abandoning computers and phones, and it would be futile to fight those forces. No, I am not a Luddite.
I even have a smartphone, now two generations out of date, but a smartphone nonetheless. Billy asked me if I had it on me. I pulled it out, which was a mistake because just before this I had reinforced my own magisterial rule in taking away his smartphone on our wilderness adventure.
Billy gave me a look more nuanced and crippling than what someone his age should be capable of. Without saying a word, he told me I was a hypocrite. I countered that my phone was available in case of emergencies, which is a legitimate point. He countered with a well-thought-out list of reasons why he should keep his phone: it was his only camera, it had an app for identifying wildflowers and another for constellations, he even used it as his journal—all things that we encouraged him to carry and use. He was even saving paper.
These were all very good points. At the time, I didn’t have a good counterargument (or a computer to type on), so this, now, is my response to Billy.
Are you familiar with AIM? AOL Instant Messenger? When I was your age, Billy, which was not all that long ago, none of my friends had cell phones or Facebook, but we did have AIM. My screen name was “Slingerring,” which has no meaning, I made it up one day. AIM is essentially the same as chatting on Facebook or Gmail, but without newsfeeds or email inboxes. I would spend hours chatting with friends online, each of us in our own little teenage cubicles, saying things that we wouldn’t have dreamed of saying in person. It was liberating and oddly empowering.
One summer afternoon while chatting on AIM, two of my friends, Luc and Andrew, informed me that they had obtained several large sheets of cardboard leftover from a cardboard boat regatta that morning. It was a hot day in the midst of a muggy Iowa summer, and the thought of spending time on the cool water was enticing. We decided to build a boat.
Cardboard boat racing is a peculiar sport. I’m not sure it’s a sport so much as an engineering challenge, but it does have aspects of a good sport: teamwork, speed, a time frame, thinking on your feet. I had not (and have still not, though I have nothing against it) participated in an actual race, but that afternoon we proceeded to build a cardboard boat on our own casual timeframe.
Now, we were not engineers, but we were smart kids—between us we now have between 4 and 7 degrees in the humanities and fine arts (Andrew’s count is a touch mysterious, and he hasn’t returned our phone calls for years, but we are fairly confident he does not possess any science or engineering degrees)—so we confidently pushed forward in constructing a seafaring vessel.
The resulting boat was, in many respects, impressive. It held together nicely thanks to our liberal applications of duct tape (a fair play in the world of cardboard boat building), it had straight lines and closed seams. The sides were about four feet tall, which is taller than necessary, but we wanted to keep the option of hiding unseen inside the boat if that became necessary. The front was angled up and slightly tapered at the bottom to better cut through the water. Luc’s mom even complimented us.
The finished product was too big to fit in or on top of a car, so in order to set sail we had to walk it down to the water. That meant a trek of about a mile down 34th Street, a fairly busy residential throughway that was traveled by many people we knew. The three of us walked downhill on the left side of the road using our hands to balance the boat on our heads as we schlepped it toward Indian Creek. Several cars honked notes of encouragement and approval.
By the time we got to the creek, we had been sweating so much that there were three wet patches on the bottom of our boat where our heads had been. Iowa summers are humid, oppressively humid at times. Andrew, always well read and full of interesting facts, told us that all the corn in Iowa makes the air more humid than it would be otherwise. Corn sweats too, and the resulting evapotranspiration has an impact on the humidity level throughout the state, which made us sweat even more profusely. He had read that on his computer.
Our sunscreen had worn off, so we took advantage of the muddy creek bottom to apply a natural layer of brown sun protection. We slathered mud on our faces and helped each other apply mud to our backs. After a few minutes we were transformed, a small army of mudslingers determined to sail down Indian Creek in our own nautical creation. The natural sunscreen made us unrecognizable, like robots caked in dried mud, less mobile than normal, embracing an altered identity.
We quickly realized that while standing in waist-deep water, we couldn’t get in a cardboard boat with four-foot tall walls. So we pulled the boat over to the shore and found a tree leaning over the water, creating a little natural dock. A breeze had picked up, and I could hear leaves dancing with each other in the wind. That was one of my favorite images—leaves dancing, animated in their restrained world, forever attached to the tree but always distanced from its core, though still holding tight in an ageless search for excitement and nourishment while the wind provided a wild ride.
Andrew jumped in the boat first. It shook and the bottom began to ripple. I was next in line and I could see the cardboard heave amorphously on top of the water. It had already begun to sink. The water and the cardboard were merging.
“Get in, quick!” Andrew yelled. I’m not sure why he yelled that. He knew the boat was sinking, and presumably he knew that if we leapt in with him it would only sink faster. I suppose if we were going to experience our boat as a boat, we had better jump.
I jumped. There is a distinct sound that duct tape makes when it begins to detach from something horizontally, not ripped off like a Band-Aid but slowly disengaging all at once along the exact crease it was meant to hold in place. It’s an ominous sound, baleful, the sign of an imminent failure. Luc jumped. The bottom of the boat danced with us in 6 directions, a brief maelstrom of cardboard between our feet. Then the duct tape gave way, and, in the span of maybe 8 seconds, our boat went from an attractive seafaring vessel with three sweat stains on the bottom to three or four crumpled heaps of soggy cardboard. It was a theatrical failure. We shouted with exuberant joy.
We spent the next hour or so floating down the creek, hanging on to our own little remnants of boat. We reapplied mudscreen as needed. We stayed cool in the water while talking about corn and listening to dancing leaves. When the time came, we ditched the boat detritus near the road (we promised ourselves to retrieve it later) and walked back up 34th Street. People still honked at us, likely for different reasons.
That night I signed onto AIM. Probably. I don’t actually remember, but there is a good chance I powered up the computer to see who else wanted to chat. I told friends about the boat extravaganza, I’m sure. It’s probable that I laughed at something somebody typed, and chances are my heart rate perked up when I saw the screen name of a girl I liked.
But, and this is what I want to tell Billy, I don’t actually remember chatting with anyone on the computer that evening. Moreover, of all the hours I spent chatting on the computer, I hardly remember any of it. I can picture myself sitting at a desk, I can picture multiple chat windows open at the same time, I even remember a couple dozen friends’ screen names. But I have a hard time remembering a single meaningful detail about any of it. AIM doesn’t give me stories to tell. It was simply a habit. I don’t look back on my online conversations with reverence, which does not make them meaningless, but it does make them boring. Unlike a good meal or a good hike or a good float, and despite how it might feel at the time, internet chats are almost never worth recounting.
This is not to say that we should forever and always avoid technology. I still do not think I am a Luddite, Billy. I like this computer, and I use it every day that I am not in the wilderness. I think cell phones are wonderful for many reasons, and I am likely to use mine within an hour of writing this story. But life on a computer or phone doesn’t make a good story. I do not plan to take your cell phone away forever, nor should I. But if you temporarily lose the option of reaching for your pocket whenever it dings, you, Billy, might better understand which parts of your day will be worth reliving.